From Kyiv to Laois: ‘From the first steps on this beautiful island, we felt peace’

Ukrainian teenager Polina Shatylo on fleeing the war and finding solace in Castletown

I'm from Kyiv. It's been three weeks since I arrived in Ireland. And this is how it started.

It all happened when I was peacefully sleeping in my bed after a hard-working day, but in a moment everything changed. I fell asleep about 2am so the first explosion I didn’t hear. But what I surely heard was how my father ran into my room with the words, “Polina wake up and get ready, the war has begun!” At that moment I clearly understood what had happened and that it was never going to be like it was before. I think absolutely every Ukrainian felt it that night, because it affected everyone. At that time, our lives were turned upside down. And after the words of my father, I immediately got up and began to pack.

Luckily, I wasn’t confused and started to quickly collect all necessary things. But I saw fear in my parents’ eyes. I understood that as adults it was important for them to feel stability, especially for my father, who is responsible for our family. I saw that at that moment they were very scared, because they understood that everything they lived for and worked for so long for could disappear in one moment. Of course, they tried to hide their fear, but I saw it. I don’t remember exactly how much time passed, maybe half an hour or less, when the next explosions were heard, and at that time I heard them exactly. That feeling was incomparable to anything, when your whole body freezes and you feel only fear. I think those who once heard it will never forget it.

At first, no one knew what to do. Some went outside, others ran to the shops; there were huge queues near the ATMs and all the roads were in traffic jams. Panic reigned in the streets. On the first day it was absolutely impossible to leave Kyiv. In addition to traffic jams, there was a big problem with petrol, there were an incredible number of cars near the gas stations, and there was simply not enough petrol for everyone. On that day, we didn’t have much fuel, so it was unrealistic to go anywhere. The first hours we sat in front of the TV watching the news. Then we decided to go to the store to buy some food and other things, because we understood that maybe later we would not have such an opportunity. It was hard to look in peoples’ eyes, everyone was confused, alarmed as never before.


Safer place

All day we stayed at home, we were very scared, because explosions were heard very often. After spending some days at home, it was very hard to live in such a way. Every night was very hard, it was difficult to sleep and live normally.

When rocket fragments hit residential buildings close to us, it forced us to leave Kyiv. We went to our relatives in a village in the countryside, where events of the war we could only hear and not see. But the situation was getting worse every day and especially at night.

After a week there, our men decided to take families to a safer place. I went with my mother, my dog and six other relatives by car. We got to Poland fast enough. In the first minutes of crossing the border, we felt care and peace. We crossed it in the middle of the night so we were very tired. We needed to find some place to stay that night because the road ahead was even harder. Luckily, in the nearest city we found some hotel, and a very kind receptionist found the last three one-bedroom rooms. We didn't have a choice, so we took them.

The next day we also spent on the way to our relatives in Poland. When we finally got there, it wasn’t the end. The flat in which our relatives live was quite small so we couldn’t stay with them. We had to move on. Eventually, we turned to the volunteers and they settled us in a special centre. We stayed there for about three weeks.

About 17 years ago my aunt (who went to Poland with us) worked in Ireland for three years. And from the very beginning of the war a friend she had made in Ireland all those years before got in touch. When they heard about our situation, they immediately invited us to come to Ireland. Of course, we were scared a little bit and considered that request, because we had never been to this country and it was very far away from our home. But then we decided to do it. During that time the Irish friend found a house where we could live and organised her other friends to help. We bought tickets and got there. It was a very long and tiring road from our temporary housing in Poland to here. And from the first steps on this beautiful island, we felt peace and quiet.

Temporary home

We were met by a lot of volunteers, who helped us with everything. Everybody asked if everything was okay or maybe we needed some help. So, with the help of all those people, we registered very fast. Our temporary home is in the very lovely Castletown, Co Laois. When we finally arrived, we got into a house that was prepared with great love. Beautiful and cosy rooms with all necessary things waiting for us. Before our arrival a lot of locals knew about us, so everybody helped to prepare everything. We are so grateful to every person who took part in it. Every little thing and detail said a lot about the big hearts of all the people who took part in it. From the first day of being here in Castletown, so many people came to us with greetings and gifts. We didn't even expect that everybody could be so friendly and helpful to strangers. On that day we finally felt peace and most importantly safety.

Some days later, the kids went to school. On the first day they were so excited. Every day on coming home they tell us how great and interesting the day was spent with new classmates and teachers. We began to gradually get used to a completely different life. Also, we were so astonished by the beauty of nature and how every person protects it. The best thing is that now we can sleep peacefully, but our hearts are still worried about our country and our people.

Polina (18) is a university student in Ukraine, studying entrepreneurship online from Co Laois